The Olympics are incredibly inspiring. How many of us watch these athletes and compare them to ourselves? How many of us assume we were born without the innate ability to become an athlete at the level of an Olympian? How many of us wonder what we could have done with our born talent if we took the time to craft it?
In February I had the honor of watching the 2016 Olympic Trials for Marathon. I stood on the sidelines and watched Kara, Shalane and the rest battle it out to be called the three fastest American marathoners, but I was also paying attention to the rest of the 200 or so women who were running by me in the hot California winter sun. 246 women qualified for the 2016 Marathon Olympic trials, many of whom are not professional winners and definitely not expecting to win. Many are mothers and recreational runners who use running as their outlet to blow off steam, connect with other runners or work toward goals. For them, running the Olympic Trials marathon in LA was a victory lap, not a race.
That evening when we were at the Oiselle after party, I brought up a question to a few of my fellow Oiselle teammates – could Asia or I qualify for the marathon Olympic trials given proper training? I posed the question – had I started running in high school or college and trained hard for several years, could I run a sub 2:45 marathon and qualify? Given that I’ve been trying to qualify for Boston for three years, a time that is 50 minutes slower than the Olympic qualifying time, I know that that ship as probably sailed for me, BUT what if?! Can ANYONE who works hard enough qualify, or do you think that we have to be “built” for running and have it in our genes?
In the last several years, I’ve been told I “look like a runner” several times. But, looking around at the elite runners at the Oiselle after party, I felt pretty far from a runner. I chose to wear heels to the Oiselle after party and have a few post pregnancy pounds left to lose, and I felt like an absolute giant compared to those women. Looking around the room, the answer to my question about whether or not I could qualify for the Olympic trials seemed pretty obvious – NO.
But, I had to remind myself of all the body types I saw that morning during the race. All body types were represented – heavy on top, heavy on bottom, thin all over. Tall, short, petite. Ripped abs, muffin tops and obvious post-baby bellies were represented. Cellulite and jiggle was happening on top of strong, reliable legs. Given that women can qualify for the Olympics anytime within 4 years, you can’t say that these women looked exactly like this when they ran their sub 2:45 marathon however long ago, but what is obvious is that there is no one single body type that allows us to run fast.
No one looked perfect, but they all looked strong. They all looked fierce.
So, by method of simple observation, I could argue that yes, although my body type isn’t as widely represented at the trials, I could still make it work. But then there are the differences you can’t see. Things like VO2 Max. Things like bone density, propensity to injury, ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers. How much do these things matter? Of course I love research and numbers, so I took to the internet. According to Dr. Alun Williams, Director of the Manchester Metropolitan University’s Cheshire Sports Genomics Laboratory,
“The genetic component appears to be around 50-70%, depending on what aspect of ability one is thinking about…strict training and practice is more likely to be enough to excel in sports like golf but unlikely to be sufficient to make champions in sports like football and “certainly not enough” in disciplines like the 100 metre track sprint.” (source)
There’s more. There is literally a gene that makes you a fast runner. It’s called the ACE gene and if you have it, you’re better at long distance running. If you don’t, you’re more inclined to be a sprinter (source). The good news is, although this gene is part of the reason why some people are fast, it’s not everything. A 2014 study called “Genetic aspects of athletic performance: the African runners phenomenon” argues,
“The data suggest that the genes most studied and associated with performance in aerobic endurance running (ACE and ACTN3) do not seem to fully explain the success of these athletes. It seems unlikely that Africa is producing unique genotypes that cannot be found in other parts of the world. So far, the evidence shows that the subjects’ phenotype (molded over time by several factors) seems to have greater influence than their genotype in their long-distance running success.” (source)
Fast genes or not, no one will EVER become a world-class athlete or an Olympian without a lot of old-fashioned hard work. While we may innately possess the qualities that contribute to faster runner, those qualities mean nothing if you aren’t training hard, fueling right and recovering well. Right now we are witnessing the PINNACLE of these athlete’s hard work when we tune into watch the Olympics. We’re seeing their moment to shine. We’re literally witnessing some of the best moments of their lives. What we aren’t seeing is the thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work and sacrifice. While the majority of these athletes were born with bodies that make it easier for them to succeed in their chosen sport, ALL of them have put in work that most of us just aren’t willing (or potentially able) to put in.
I don’t think I’ll ever truly know the answer to my question as to whether or not I could have (or could still!) qualify for the Olympic trials given the right amount of dedication and hard work over many years. The answer that I do know is that I was never committed to that goal and it’s not the sort of thing that just happens without dedication. Some people may just happen to qualify for Boston on the first attempt, but no one just magically qualifies for the Olympic trials. Every woman and man who ran the Olympic Marathon qualifier in LA in February made sacrifices to be in that position whether or not they are a professional runner, have the typical “runner’s body,” the ACE gene, a high V02 max, or ran at the collegiate level. There are too many factors that go into being”fast” (and too many definitions of fast) to know what exactly makes someone a great runner. So instead of worrying about it, I think I’ll go for a run.
What do you think? Do you feel like you’re a naturally good runner or do you have to work at it? Do you think hard work is more important than natural skill? What about body type?